“David Lantz?” Isaac realized he was catching flies, and snapped his jaw shut.
With a frown that drew his dark bushy eyebrows together, Father placed a ribbon over his page and closed his worn leather Bible. The wooden kitchen chair creaked as he sat back.
Beside him at the battered table, Mother faltered in her sewing. Her face was shadowed in the flickering light of the kerosene lamp. It was running out of fuel, but Father and Mother were apparently content to squint. In her long navy dress and black apron, Isaac thought Mother would all but disappear in the low light if not for the stark white cap—its pleats precisely half an inch apart—covering her light blonde hair. The untied strings hung over her shoulders.
Isaac shifted from one bare foot to the other, a loose floorboard squeaking beneath him. None of them wore shoes in the house except during church, and in the summer they were often barefoot around the farm as well. He traced a seam on the floor with his big toe.
The aroma of the chicken stew Mother had served for dinner still hung in the air. While minutes ago he had been happily full, now Isaac’s stomach churned. He tugged on his collar, sweat prickling the nape of his neck.
“It’s only that he’s…” Isaac’s mind raced, but he failed to find a suitable term in their dialect of German to describe David Lantz. Even if they were permitted to speak English in the house, words failed him. He fell silent and clasped his hands behind him to keep from fidgeting with the small piece of wood and folding knife tucked into his pocket.
His father, Samuel, stared for an uncomfortably long moment before continuing in his usual measured tone, his words slow and considered as if each was being etched in stone. “You want to be a carpenter, and David Lantz is the best in Zebulon.”
Guilt roiled in Isaac like acid in his stomach. Father had arranged this job since he knew how Isaac loved woodworking. Father had been generous, and this was how Isaac repaid him? Still, the idea of spending almost every day with David Lantz made him feel surprisingly unwell. “But…” Isaac cast about for a good reason. “He’s not even following church yet.”
“Ruth, didn’t Abram’s Sarah say David will begin his instruction this Sunday?”
Mother didn’t glance up from her sewing. “Yes.”
David Lantz was finally joining the church? While Isaac should have felt joy at the news, his chest was strangely hollow. There had always been something different about David, but that would surely disappear once he was baptized and took a wife. And why should Isaac object? He wished he understood the nonsense that went through his mind sometimes.
As a thud echoed, Mother narrowed her gaze toward the main room. She called out sharply. “Boys. Into bed.”
Isaac suspected the footsteps scurrying upstairs also belonged to his little sister Katie. Once all was quiet once more, Mother spoke again, her needle poised over the patch she was sewing over the worn elbow of Ephraim or Joseph or perhaps Nathan’s shirt.
“You aren’t baptized yet either, my Isaac.” She jabbed the needle into the cloth. “We’re not sure what you’re waiting for. Isn’t it time you joined the church? Don’t you want to grow a beard and be a man? Find a wife?”
Not really. “I’m barely eighteen! David Lantz is twenty-two already.”
Father stroked his long beard. Although his brows were still somehow dark as pitch, his hair and the beard hanging from his chin were mostly gray. “It is not unwise to show patience and have surety before committing to join the church. After all, this is why we’re baptized as adults rather than children. So we can make a commitment to God and the community with our whole hearts.”
“Yes, Father,” Isaac mumbled.
“We know you’ll find the path to heaven. Every man and woman must come to their choice in their own time, just as you will. The right choice.”
Isaac resisted the urge to snort. Choice. The word was meaningless in Zebulon. Of course he would join the church. What else was he to do? At the thought, a current shot through him—a mixture of dread and the dark excitement he kept locked away, using the key only in the smallest, blackest hours of the night. He cleared his throat.
“I just wonder if he’s ready to take on an apprentice.”
“There’s no reason he should not,” Father replied. “Unless you wish to stay working with me on the farm after all.”
“No, no,” Isaac answered with far too much haste. “As long as you can milk the herd without my help.”
“It’s just that…”
“Has David Lantz been unkind to you?” Mother asked, a furrow in her forehead and the sewing abandoned in her lap.
“Not at all. It’s only that he’s…” Terrifying. “I’m only surprised, I suppose. I didn’t expect this opportunity.”
Mother smiled slyly. “It’s good you should get to know him better. He might be your brother before too long.”
“Mom!” Flushing, Isaac wished he could be anywhere else.
Mother stared with tight lips, and Father raised a bushy brow as Isaac realized what he’d said. It had been a struggle when they came to Zebulon to stop calling his parents ‘Mom and Dad,’ but the new Ordnung the community followed decreed the words too modern and worldly. “I’m sorry. Anyway, I hardly know Mary Lantz.”
Mother tsked. “Of course you do. We all know each other in Zebulon. Oh Isaac—still so shy with the girls. Your father was the same way.” She chuckled, and her fingers flew, the silver needle glinting as she lowered her head to her task once more.
The black wood-burning stove belched, and Isaac listened to the ticking of the clock Mother wound at the start of each month. The only other item hanging on the white walls was a simple calendar from the feed shop. With enough Amish customers from Zebulon now, the owner had started making a calendar without pictures.
Isaac closed his eyes for a moment, glimpsing his future working shoulder to shoulder with David Lantz while courting Mary, for he’d need a wife after he started following church. His stomach lurched again, and he wasn’t sure what to feel. Should he try to dissuade Father?
With a silent sigh, his mind returned to the Bible passage most familiar to him—repeated so often it was practically carved into his bones. They were only permitted to read the Bible in German, but he thought of it in English. His pitiful little rebellion, since of course he would do as he was told.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor thy father and mother; which is the first commandment.
Father returned to his Bible and sipped his mug of tea. “You will begin Monday.”
And that was that.
# # #
The drone of the engine was little more than a vibration in the air, underlying the symphony of the cicadas beyond the barn, but Isaac toppled over the milking stool in his haste. Ephraim’s head shot up.
Isaac was already out of his milking stall and at the open barn door, blotting his forehead with the sleeve of his navy shirt and straightening his flat-topped straw hat. With a swipe of his fingers he made sure the black band around it was neat. He’d undone the three hooks at the neck of his collarless shirt, so he quickly redid them before straightening his galluses and brushing off the seat of his black pants.
“Wait! You got to go last time!” Ephraim joined him at the door, hands on his hips. At sixteen, he was almost as tall as Isaac—possibly even taller and brushing six feet with the unruly mess of sandy curls atop his head.
“I’m older. Finish the milking.”
Leaving Ephraim’s huffs and muttering behind, Isaac hurried past the chicken pen, the birds clucking and squawking as he kicked up dust. He was so used to having dirty feet after seven years living with Swartzentruber ways that he hardly noticed. He ducked under listless sheets on the clothesline that ran between the washhouse and their home.
Isaac knew his brother had a perfectly valid point about fairness, but they didn’t get many visitors. He couldn’t resist—especially when Father was on the other side of their land tending to the small crop of soybeans he sold to neighbors.
Holstein cattle grazed on the rolling hills beyond the barn, their cream and black hides stark amid the sea of green. They had seventeen cows, and sold two tons of milk a week to a local organic dairy. The dairy picked up the milk, but their truck never came this late in the day. Isaac’s pulse raced as he glimpsed the vehicle approaching.
The late afternoon sun glinted off the silver chrome of a big car the English called an SUV. Isaac wasn’t sure what it stood for, but it was a sight to see—high off the ground like a buggy, but sleek and shiny. Formidable. He wondered how it would feel to have that engine thrum beneath him. Hot tightness in his belly warned of the danger of such thoughts, and he focused on the couple clambering down from the vehicle.
The man greeted him, smiling widely as he took off his sunglasses. “Hello! We saw the sign at the end of the drive. Hope we haven’t come too late in the day, but my wife would love to see the quilts.” He swatted at a horsefly.
“Not too late at all. I’ll get my mother.” Isaac glanced at the house, knowing she would be glued to the kitchen window. The black curtain fluttered, and Mother appeared in the doorway a few moments later. Isaac called out in German to tell her to bring the quilts.
Isaac turned back to the English couple. “It’ll just be a moment.”
The redheaded woman was about forty. There were dark sunglasses perched on her head, and her lips were bright red. She wore shorts that didn’t even reach her knees, and a sleeveless shirt with buttons down the front.
“What a cute place you’ve got here!”
“Thank you.” Isaac smiled politely. Their simple two-story wooden house was trimmed in dark gray on the ground floor and navy on top. Black curtains hung in all the windows, and the roof was battered tin. It was anything but cute, and the dark red barn, washhouse and little ice house all needed new coats of paint. At least the outhouse was hidden from sight in a stand of trees.
Mother dragged a trunk outside, and Isaac hurried over to help. Katie was close behind with another armful of neatly folded quilts she could barely see over. At ten and the only daughter left, she was already an experienced quilter. Around her load, Katie peeked at the visitors.
Isaac returned to them. “You can go on over and take a look.”
The man was tapping his phone, and didn’t join his wife. He stood a head higher than Isaac, and had very broad shoulders. His light hair was close cropped, and he had a short beard and mustache. Isaac tried to think of something appropriate to say.
Is it rude to talk to someone when they’re using their phone? Am I standing too close? Although the man wasn’t talking on it, just touching the screen with his thumbs.
“Are you speaking to someone when you do that?” Isaac blurted.
The man jumped as though he’d forgotten Isaac was there. He tapped a few more times and slipped the narrow phone into his jeans pocket. “Sorry, I was just texting my mom. She’s looking after the kids for the weekend.”
“That’s all right. So…that’s sending a message? Texting?”
“Oh right—I guess you don’t text around here, huh?” He pulled out his phone again. “Do you want me to show you?”
Yes! Isaac glanced toward the house. Mother was smiling politely as the English woman chattered and crouched down to examine the quilts. They were far enough away that Isaac couldn’t make out the words, but Mother met his gaze.
She called out in German. “All right?”
Isaac nodded and turned back to the man. “Thank you, but I’d better not.”
He shrugged and pocketed his phone again. “Sure.”
An awkward silence followed, and Isaac thought maybe he should just leave the man to his texting.
“Is that Dutch your mother’s speaking? What do they call it…Pennsylvania Dutch?”
Isaac smiled. “It’s actually a German dialect. I’m not sure how it came to be called Dutch.”
“Is that right? I’ll be damned.” The man raised a hand. “Excuse my language.”
The visitor opened the door of his SUV and pulled out a plastic water bottle. “My wife was thrilled to see there’s an Amish community here. She loves buying authentic crafts and that kind of stuff.”
“That’s…good.” Most English tourists who came through happened by when Father was home, and Isaac couldn’t remember the last time he’d spoken to one. What do English people talk about? “Uh, where are you from?”
“Winnipeg—up in Canada?” He extended his hand. “I’m Darren Bell, and my wife is Michelle.”
Isaac shook his hand. “Isaac Byler. Nice to meet you.”
“How long have you all been here, Isaac? I don’t remember there being any Amish folks living down this way the last time I was through. Although that was quite a while ago, I suppose.”
“We’ve lived here about seven years.”
“Did you come from Pennsylvania?” Darren took a drink from his bottle, his throat working as he swallowed.
“No, from Ohio. A place called Red Hills.”
“Ohio, huh?” Darren leaned an elbow back on his vehicle, his white T-shirt stretching across his muscles. “And why did you move to northern Minnesota? Winters weren’t cold enough for you?”
Isaac realized he was staring at Darren’s chest and the faint shadow of dark hair beneath the white cotton. He jerked his gaze up to Darren’s face, laughing uneasily. “They were definitely cold enough for me. But we wanted to break off and start our own settlement, and the land here is plentiful and a good price.” It was true enough.
“What’s the population of this place? I’m actually not sure of the name since there doesn’t seem to really be a main part of town.”
“Zebulon. There are about a hundred and eighty of us.”
“Guess you know everyone here, huh? I grew up in a little place in eastern Manitoba, and it’s not quite the same living in the city.” He laughed. “Not that Winnipeg is a booming metropolis. Still, it’s nice to have people around you can depend on.”
“It is.” Although Isaac often wondered what it would be like to live in a city and be free to do what he wanted without everyone finding out.
“Why did you all want to start a new community?” Darren held up his hands. “I’m sorry—stop me if I’m being too nosy.” He glanced at his wife and smiled ruefully. “She could be here a while.”
“I don’t mind.” Isaac could imagine how Father would grumble after the English left if he’d been asked these questions. “Our bishop felt our old settlement had become too modern and worldly. Sixteen families followed him here. Two more came after, and another last year.”
“Too modern?” Darren laughed. “Really?”
Isaac chuckled, nudging up his hat to scratch his forehead. “I know it must seem crazy to the English.”
“I’m sorry—I don’t mean any offense.”
“Don’t worry.” Isaac glanced behind and lowered his voice. “It seemed pretty crazy to me at first. There were already a lot of rules in Ohio, and here we have even more. I don’t think an English person would last long in Zebulon.”
Darren tilted his head, still smiling easily. “So Michelle and I are what you’d call English, right? Why English and not American? Or Canadian as the case may be.”
“I asked once when I was a boy, and Father said it’s just our way. He says that a lot.”
“I bet.” Darren took another swig of water. “So it wasn’t strict enough before for your old man and the other people who moved here?”
Isaac stared at a drop of water on Darren’s lower lip. “Uh…” He shoved his hands in his pockets and refocused. “Yeah. They thought the Amish where we lived had become too lax. There were rubber-covered rims on buggies instead of steel, and some families even had telephones. Not inside the house, of course—but in little shacks at the end of their driveways. There was indoor plumbing, and…”
Darren waited, his eyebrows raised.
“And young people were running too wild.” Ruining it for all of us. “Here in Zebulon we follow the ways of the Swartzentruber Amish.”
“Swartz…Swartzentruber? What does that mean?”
“It’s a name. After they separated from the bigger Amish community in Ohio the bishops were called Swartzentruber. It stuck, I guess.”
Darren crossed his tan arms, the plastic bottle dangling from his fingers. “Well, you learn something new every day. I thought all the Amish were the same.”
“It’s all right, most English people think that. But there are Old Order, New Order, Swartzentruber, Beachy.” Isaac smiled. “Of course we all think our Ordnung is the right one. Our rules, I mean.” He shouldn’t be speaking so frankly with a tourist, but something about Darren loosened Isaac’s tongue. “And I guess we think you’re all the same too.”
Darren’s teeth gleamed as he smiled. “Fair enough.” He called to his wife. “Sweetheart, we shouldn’t keep these folks too much longer. It’s almost suppertime.”
“Just another minute,” she answered.
“Don’t worry.” Isaac reassured him. She can take as long as she wants if she buys something.
“All right, where were we?” Darren stroked his beard. “When did all this happen? The Swartzenhubers first going out on their own, I mean.”
Isaac was struck with the bizarre thought of what Darren’s short beard would feel like against his own cheek. He stared at his dirty feet and didn’t correct Darren’s mispronunciation. “Oh, a long time ago. A hundred years or so, I reckon. There are Swartzentrubers all over the place now. Some here in Minnesota, down in Fillmore County. We’re a little different up here in certain ways. Most settlements are. We all like to do things our own way.”
“Do you mind telling me how you’re different?”
Isaac hooked his thumbs under his galluses. “One thing is that we wear two of these. Some Swartzentrubers only use one.”
“Suspenders? Why not two?”
“They say it’s too vain.” Isaac shrugged. “But I think they’re great for holding up your pants. Bishop Yoder agreed, fortunately.” He watched as Darren stroked his chin. “Is that itchy?”
Darren’s brow creased. “Is what itchy?”
Isaac fiddled with the brim of his hat before shoving his hands in his pockets. “Having a beard all over your face like that. Not just on the bottom.”
“Oh, that.” Darren shrugged. “It can get a little hot in the summer, but no, it’s not itchy. Amish men don’t have full beards?”
“Honey?” The woman’s voice rang out. “Which one do you think would go better in Mom’s apartment? Come and look.”
Darren smiled. “Excuse me—duty calls.”
Isaac watched him trot over to where his wife examined the quilts. With their bright colors and intricate patterns, Isaac didn’t understand how the quilts weren’t too worldly. But they sold for a pretty penny to the English, and he certainly wasn’t going to complain.
With everyone’s attention on the quilts, Isaac drifted closer to the SUV. With a quick glance to be sure Mother wasn’t watching, he stood as near as he dared to catch a glimpse in the mirror on the side. Although he’d grown up with a mirror in the bathroom, in Zebulon Bishop Yoder had declared them to be the devil’s plaything—dark instruments that encouraged vanity and pride. Isaac had rarely seen his reflection since he was eleven.
Heart racing, he ducked his head. Beneath the straw hat, his short sandy hair swept over his forehead in the style of most Amish men, but his hair didn’t have to cover his ears and he wore no beard since he hadn’t been baptized yet. It was so hot in the summers that Isaac kept his hair as short as he dared.
His light yellow-brown eyes had long lashes, and as he peered closer he could see faint freckles brushed across the bridge of his nose and over the tops of his cheeks. He was tanned from the summer sun, and he looked sturdy and strong. Handsome even.
Not as handsome as David Lantz.
Shame flushed him, and he almost tripped over his own feet as he put a respectable distance between himself and the English car. He wasn’t sure where the thought had come from. It was wrong to have any pride in his own appearance, and to even notice David’s was just…
The word English kids used to call him when he went to town in Red Hills popped into his head. Yes, it was weird to think of David that way. In two days he’d start work with him, and here he was having crazy notions.
Isaac gave his head a shake. What was wrong with him? It was such nonsense to be alternately admiring and frightened. David Lantz was joining the church. He was an honorable and good man. Hard working and decent. What was there to fear?
“Isaac!” Mother’s voice rang out.
He hurried over to help carry the three quilts Michelle had picked. With the shadow of winter looming around the corner, it was a good thing to make any extra money they could from tourists now. Isaac wished they could sell the quilts in Warren, but the Ordnung forbade it, even though people were allowed to go to market in many other Amish communities. In Zebulon, Bishop Yoder was determined to keep them away from the unclean world.
Plus it was twenty miles there and back, which would take hours and was a hard journey for Roy, the Saddlebred who pulled the family buggy. Warren wasn’t even a big town at all, but Isaac longed to return there. It had been more than three years now since he’d been away from the farms of Zebulon for even a day.
Darren pulled money from his wallet and peeled off the bills, giving them to Isaac. Then he extended his hand again. “It was a real pleasure to meet you, Isaac.”
Isaac shook his hand. “Hope we’ll see you again sometime.”
“I hope so. One more question: why don’t Amish men have mustaches?”
Isaac was very aware of Mother hovering some feet behind, but he saw no reason not to answer. “Too militaristic. It goes back a long way—to Germany.”
Michelle hooked her hand through her husband’s arm. “Isn’t that interesting? I’m so glad we stopped. Hey, can I take a picture?” She reached into her purse.
Isaac raised his hand. “No. I’m sorry, we’re not allowed to pose for photographs.” At Darren’s inquisitive expression he added, “They’re graven images. It’s against the rules. But again, it depends on the settlement. Some Amish will pose.” But Father had always told them to say no, and even though he was in the fields, Mother was hovering.
Michelle smiled. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. So your name’s Byler, right? We’ll be sure to mention your gorgeous quilts on Trip Advisor.”
Isaac had no idea what she meant, but smiled and nodded, waving as they left. It had been a dry summer, and even now into late September the heat lingered. A cloud of dust rose in Darren and Michelle’s wake, and when it settled, the SUV was gone. Isaac listened to its faint rumble until there were only the cicadas singing, and Ephraim shouting for him to get back to the barn.
# # #
Heaving a sigh, Isaac flipped onto his other side, poking Nathan harder than he should with his elbow. Of course Nathan was so thin and gangly these days as he sprouted up that Isaac thought it probably hurt his elbow more than it affected Nathan. His brown hair sticking up, Nathan snorted and muttered, swiping a hand over his pimply face.
Of course he started snoring again within a minute. How Ephraim and Joseph could be fast asleep in their bed with Nathan making so much noise, Isaac had no idea. Nathan had slept quietly for years, but the last few months had been a different tale. It was as if one of the freight trains that rumbled by east of Zebulon had detoured through their bedroom.
Dawn was still hours away. He wished he could light the lamp and finish whittling the horse he was making Joseph for his eighth birthday, but he wanted it to be a surprise. The glow could wake his brothers—even if they were apparently deaf to Nathan’s snoring.
Isaac closed his eyes and told himself sternly to ignore the noise. He needed to find peace in the spirit of brotherhood and cast aside his anger. Surely sleep would follow. He breathed deeply and counted out the seconds of his exhale. Beside him, Nathan snorted and rolled over.
For a moment there was only blissful silence.
Followed by a familiar roar that grew to a fevered pitch before receding again. Over and over, until Isaac jerked back the quilt and fled. After closing the door gently behind him, he tip-toed downstairs. He might as well visit the outhouse since he was awake.
Although the days had been hot, Isaac shivered as he ventured behind the house, the ground surprisingly cold beneath his bare feet. With only a crescent moon lighting his way, he paused, debating whether to return for the lantern. But it wasn’t as though he hadn’t traveled this route a thousand and one times. He hurried into the trees.
Inside the outhouse he gathered up his nightshirt, wincing at the chill of the wooden seat. He shuddered to think of how frigid it would be before long. At least the seat was smooth and polished with so much use. At Noah Miller’s new farm, Isaac thought he would get splinters in his rear end. With all the work the community put into raising the Miller’s barn, some care could have been spared for the rest of the buildings.
Once he finished his business, Isaac wandered into the trees, in no rush to return to Nathan’s cacophony. To make it worse, tomorrow was Sunday—and it was a church day. He knew it was awfully sinful, but Isaac couldn’t help but look forward to the Sundays when they didn’t have church. He’d heard that Christians in the English world had church every Sunday, so he should be grateful he only had to withstand the services every other week.
Yet the idea of sitting on a hard bench crammed into the Hooley’s house while Bishop Yoder and the preachers droned on inspired little gratitude in him. He wasn’t sure when it would be his family’s turn to host church services at their house again, but he hoped it wasn’t for some time.
And of course Sunday night after church was set aside for the singings, and Isaac could already imagine Mary Lantz’s eager gaze and sweet smile. She was a nice girl, and would make a fine wife. Yet Isaac felt only a puzzling sense of emptiness when he tried to imagine a future with David Lantz’s sister.
At the thought of David, heat arced through him. In the shadows of the leafy trees, at least no one would see him go red right to the tips of his ears. Beginning Monday he would see David Lantz every day. He would spend hours with him—and with those light blue eyes that shone with something Isaac couldn’t identify. Something that made him feel guilty just to see it.
Yet Isaac could think of no time over the years when David Lantz had broken the Ordnung. He’d barely known David in Red Hills, and after the terrible thing that drove them to create Zebulon, to Isaac’s knowledge David had lived as he should. If he hadn’t, the whispers would have certainly reached Isaac’s ears. Keeping a secret in Zebulon wasn’t easy.
Although it had been odd to them all that David had waited to join the church. Perhaps one of the girls had finally caught his eye at the singings. Isaac swallowed thickly, his throat suddenly dry. Isaac had expected David to court Katie Miller or Rebecca Yoder or Sarah Raber long ago. Yet he’d hardly dated any of them. Surely that would change in the weeks to come.
Isaac leaned back against the trunk of an Ironwood. The bark was rough through his nightshirt, but he didn’t mind. Since it was a Saturday he’d had a bath that evening, and he slipped his hand under his collar to rub at his pleasantly tight skin.
The memory of the frolic at the Kauffmans’ farm unfolded in his mind. Barn raisings were Isaac’s favorite kind of frolic, when the community came together to help with a task. He wasn’t keen on slaughtering hogs at the Rabers’ or harvesting corn at the Ottos’, but barn raisings were fun. At the Kauffmans’ that spring day he’d found himself up near the roof of the barn’s frame, hammering nails next to David Lantz.
It was cool and cloudy, but sweat prickled down Isaac’s spine. He straddled a thick joist near David, each of them working silently on the frame, although Isaac gnawed his lip to keep from rambling nonsense. Why he was nervous he had no idea. It was probably the distance to the ground below.
He glanced up beneath the brim of his straw hat. A few feet away on the other side of a post, David’s head was bowed as he hammered, his hat covering his thick dark hair and the brim obscuring his face as he bent to his work.
Isaac’s gaze roamed. The black material of David’s pants stretched over his powerful thighs, and his forearms were muscular where he’d rolled up the sleeves of his gray shirt. Dark hair sprinkled his arms, and Isaac was gripped with the bizarre urge to sweep his hand over David’s bare skin. His breath stuttered.
In an instant David’s head was up, his light blue eyes fixed on Isaac. He was clean shaven since he wasn’t following church yet, and his lips were full, and—
“I was just—” Isaac waved his arm, tearing his gaze away from David’s mouth. His stomach dropped as he veered dangerously off balance, still holding the hammer and nails. He yelped, but then David had him, clutching Isaac’s shoulder with one hand and his knee with the other. Nerves jumping, Isaac tried to smile. The calluses on David’s fingers pressed against the base of his neck.
Isaac managed to croak out a word. “Thanks.”
David didn’t let go. “Keep the nails in your pocket and pull out one at a time. That way you can drop it if you need to and it’s not likely to hit anyone down below.”
“Right. Good idea.” He nodded vigorously. David still held him and Isaac felt as though his shoulder and knee were ablaze even though it didn’t hurt at all. “How did you do that so fast?” He nodded to David’s hammer neatly hooked onto the waist of his pants, where it had been in his hand only moments ago.
David’s lips lifted into a smile and a dimple appeared in his cheek. “Practice. Sure you’re okay?” He rubbed Isaac’s knee.
Sticky desire spread through Isaac, and he prayed he wouldn’t humiliate himself by tenting his pants. Lord, what was wrong with him? He breathed deeply, tearing his gaze away from those pale eyes as he shifted back on the joist and out of David’s grasp. “I’m fine!” He laughed like a braying donkey. After a few long breaths, he glanced back up.
David still watched him, but now there was something new in his gaze—a strange and wonderful shine that made Isaac feel unbearably hot all over. He couldn’t look away, and the moment stretched out, silence between them, and the sounds of work and men all around fading into the damp spring air.
Isaac licked his dry lips, and David jerked his head down again, his face hidden and his chest rising and falling rapidly. He plucked his hammer from his pants, and didn’t say another word as he went back to work.
Isaac realized he was clenching the nails in his left hand so tightly they’d almost cut into his palm. His fingers trembled as he tucked all but one into his pocket.
Isaac shifted uncomfortably against the tree, and his palm stole down to rub against his hardening cock just once through his nightshirt before he tore it away. This was why he tried to avoid David Lantz. There was sin threatening to bloom in Isaac’s soul, and he had to tamp it down. Had to extinguish that spark before it caught and blazed out of control.
In the distance, a train whistle pierced the stillness. Although he could barely see anything beyond the trees, Isaac closed his eyes and imagined the endless line of cars barreling along the track, carrying unknown cargo to places far from Zebulon. Perhaps the train would tunnel through mountains and arrive at the ocean’s edge, passing towns and even cities on its journey.
As he imagined being atop that carefree train, his body hummed as if he were, as though he could feel the power of the locomotive shuddering through him. Images of the thundering metal and distant lands merged with David Lantz’s blue eyes and single dimple. Isaac couldn’t fight the desperate, terrifying excitement building in him. He hiked his nightshirt to his waist.
Pulling his foreskin back, Isaac roughly touched his cock, his lips pressed together to silence his moans. Even away from the house amid the trees in the dead of night, he had to be careful. No one could know his secret.
The cool night air whispered across Isaac’s bare skin. He shivered, but his excitement grew at the wickedness of being half naked right out in the open, touching himself as he knew he shouldn’t. He wasn’t far from the outhouse, and if anyone else used it they’d undoubtedly discover him.
But he couldn’t stop.
His toes curled in the grass as he flexed his thighs and pumped his hips, bracing his upper back against the tree and arching into the tight grip of his hand. In his mind he was naked in the night air, flying on top of the train, the wind whipping his hair back from his forehead.
David was there, his eyes blazing, seeing right into Isaac’s soul. Then it was David’s hand touching him, his breath hot on Isaac’s face as he leaned in so close, lips soft, and then fierce as he claimed him—
The train’s whistle sounded again, closer this time, and Isaac’s cry echoed with it as he spilled over his hand, the bliss tearing through him and leaving him quivering and messy. He opened his eyes, jerking his head around to make sure he was still alone.
Chest heaving, he yanked down his nightshirt and scurried back to the outhouse. He tore off a ream of scratchy toilet paper to clean himself as best he could with shaking hands.
When he was back in bed with his brother’s snores, Isaac prayed for forgiveness and the dawn.
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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